North Korea sounds Australia's air raid siren

Australia faces no direct threat from North Korea but in light of the beleaguered JSF program it's a reminder of Australia's vulnerability to potentially belligerent neighbours.

Australians should shudder when we look at what is happening in North Korea. We are clearly not in danger of attack but we are seeing the first illustration of the looming weakness of American air defence – a weakness that will become more and more apparent in coming years. And Australia is buttoned into that weakness.

The US sent F-22 fighters into the region to defend South Korea. The F-22 is a wonderful aircraft and will do the job, but the F-22 is no longer in production so its usefulness is going to decline in the wake of the new Russian-Indian and Chinese aircraft that will dominate the region. And the F-22 is not being sold to other countries, including Australia.

The plan was that the Joint Strike Fighter or F-35 would gradually replace the F-22 and in two months the Gillard government will be put under pressure to place orders for the JSF.

Canada has already declined similar pressure because it realises that the JSF is a complete lemon and a total waste of money.

The world is fortunate that North Korea did not emerge as a rogue state later in the decade. Had it waited, North Korea might have been equipped with the latest Chinese or Russian aircraft. Without further development, the F-22 will struggle against the new generation of Russian and Chinese aircraft. The JSF and the current Australian spearhead, the Hornet, will be useless against them.

It’s taken a long time but gradually Americans are waking up to the fact that they have been misled by their defence chiefs.

CNBC quotes Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, as saying the JSF (F-35) program now costs approximately $200 million per aircraft whereas the superior F-22 would cost only $143 million.  

Wheeler says that the JSF, having missed its original deployment date of 2012 is now being scheduled for 2019 “if it ever gets to that stage”.

Wheeler says the US defence chief’s took a vertical landing design and said, 'let's make that supersonic'.

"But STOVL [short take-off and vertical landing] airplanes have to be short and stumpy, and supersonic airplanes like to be twin-engine, and long and fine-looking", Wheeler says.

The defence chiefs then tried to make the JSF a multi-purpose fighter and bomber but each function has different design specifications. Then they further complicated the design process by aiming at versions for each of the American services. The result was a disaster and a large number of basic design faults have arisen.

Wheeler points to just one fault: "The pilots say they can't see to the rear, because of the way the cockpit meets the fuselage and the placement of the headrest. Seeing to the rear is essential for fighter aircraft."

So what will it cost to correct these problems? Wheeler says that in June 2012, the Government Accountability Office released a report estimating that the revised development cost would exceed $55 billion, a 23-per cent jump over previous estimates. But Wheeler says that the acquisition costs will be at least $396 billion plus a projected total cost of $1.1 trillion for the JSF’s entire 30-year service life - a total of $1.5trillion. Wheeler believes the JSF costs will rise further.

"We're only 25 per cent of the way through the initial testing, and this is the easy, laboratory testing. Real testing doesn't even begin until 2017.”

Despite all the time and money, Wheeler says that he does not expect the completed JSF (F-35) to be “much of an improvement over what the military already has patrolling the skies”. In fact some of the military's existing airplanes already outperform the projected performance of the JSF.

"The smart thing to do is put these things out of their agony and initiate a properly conceived program to design a fighter and a separate air-to-ground bomber,’’ he says

What Wheeler does not say is that that because the JSF barely matches existing US aircraft the new generation Russian-Indian and Chinese aircraft will swamp it. Indonesia will have the Russian-Indian planes.

The last thing the current Australian crisis-ridden government wants to think about is long-term defence. But after the election we should press the Americans to take the F-22 production tools out of mothballs and merge the program with the JSF so that the F-22 can be enhanced by the JSF software developments and remain competitive.

North Korea will then have done us a favour by raising the alert.

My recent commentaries on the JSF include:

(Stephen Smith’s 11th-hour flight option, March 5).

(Awakening to a decade of defence failure, February 19).

(Shooting down lies from the sky, February 15).

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